August 31, 2007

Republicans Make the Sexytime For a Change

For years, Democratic elected officials have had a lock on sex scandals. This monopoly goes back at least as far as John F. Kennedy's adventures in the 1950s and early 1960s. Kennedy even bagged Marilyn Monroe, which would be the equivalent today of having Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsey Lohan and Angelina Jolie in rapid succession. The chain of Democratic hanky panky continued with JFK's brother Teddy and nephew Joe (and pretty much any elected male Kennedy), President Lyndon Johnson, Congressman and Tidal Basin bather Wilbur Mills, up through Senator Gary "Monkey Business" Hart and then President Bill Clinton. All of the Democratic sex scandals involved young women. It had even become a stereotype that "Democrats have more fun."

But during the past few years, the Washington sex scandals have almost all involved Republican lawmakers and leaders. These include Congressman Mark Foley, who had a thing for student pages in the House of Representatives, Pastor Ted Haggard, faux White House correspondent Jeff Gannon f/k/a James Guckert, Florida House member Bob Allen, Young Republicans chairman Glenn Murphy, Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, who appeared on the D.C. Madam's phone list and admitted to consorting with her prostitutes, and, most recently, Senator Larry Craig of Idaho.

Unlike the Democrats, however, every one of these Republicans caught with his pants down, except for Vitter, was caught with another man (or worse, a very young man under his supervision). Bob Allen and Larry Craig were caught soliciting sex from men in a public restroom. Haggard hired male prostitutes. Gannon/Guckert turned out to be a male prostitute. Murphy was busted for, okay, I've had enough, you can look it up. It has to do with someone being asleep at the time.

This dichotomy leaves me with a few questions. First, what happened to the Republicans' brand as the party of "family values"? How does all this behavior square with their policy (espoused vociferously by some of the men listed above) of gay-bashing as a way to attract religious fundamentalist "values voters" at election time? Was that just a cynical and hypocritical tactic to take advantage of these voters' deeply held religious principles? Or was it a pathological cover by these prominent Republicans to overcompensate for their true nature? Maybe they really wanted everything to do with being gay to remain a taboo, so that their trysts could be "forbidden fruit" (no pun intended) and thus all the more exciting?

The other thing I want to know is, while the political pendulum is swinging to the left, is it possible that the swinging pendulum is swinging to the right?

Read more!

August 30, 2007

New Winner of the Worst Job in the World Contest

Until now, I thought that being a restroom attendant was the worst job in the world. They have to stand in the restroom all evening, near the stalls, while people are going to the bathroom, and then hand them soap and hand towels.

Now there's a new winner for worst job in the world: the police officer who arrested Republican Idaho Senator Larry Craig in the men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. Let me get this straight: This officer sits in a restroom stall for hours at a time, presumably with his pants down for authenticity, and waits for men to come on to him with their feet or otherwise? And all the while, the other 99.9% of men in the restroom are going to the bathroom all around him?

What does a cop have to do to get this gig? At least the restroom attendant gets to stand, keep his pants on, and walk outside for fresh air every once in a while. Plus he gets tips.

Read more!

August 26, 2007

Breath of a Salesman (Car Buying Lesson Number Two)

The second lesson of car buying is: many car salesmen treat their customers like idiots, and many customers are. Salesmen try, and often succeed, to get the customer to focus on the monthly payment, rather than the price of the car. That's backwards. A monthly payment (when financing or leasing) is simply a mathematical result caused by the price of the car (plus sales tax and finance charges) divided into monthly pieces. The only way truly to lower one's monthly payments is to lower one or more of the components that make up the overall price. Of these, the largest component is obviously the price paid for the car itself.

But car salesmen often reverse this process and create a series of deceptions for the customer. The most common deception is getting the customer to focus on a seemingly low monthly payment, while simultaneously charging a large down payment. That is simply robbing Peter to pay Paul. If you look at a car ad in a newspaper or magazine, the large print is the monthly payment. Often this payment looks attractive (and it invariably ends in a 9). But if you look at the fine print, it almost always indicates a substantial down payment or "capital cost reduction." What's more, the fine print in these ads usually indicates that the advertised price is based on MSRP (Manufacturer's Suggested Retail Price). That's sticker price. Zero discount. Not much of a deal there.

When you're in discussions with car salesmen and they present you with a (rather high) monthly payment and you react negatively to it, many salesmen will then ask, "what do you want your monthly payment to be?" They may even ask you this when you first walk into the dealership. Again, that begs the question, since whatever number you answer, they will typically pull the money out of the monthly payment to lower it to that level, and add the amount to the down payment. Or they might lengthen the term of the loan, or shorten the term of the lease, either of which almost always results in lower monthly payments but not a lower price overall being paid. It's all a psychological ruse. You could buy or lease a Bentley for $299 per month if you wanted to. All you have to do is put down $158,000. So when a car salesman asks me, "what do you want your monthly payment to be?" I answer, "the lowest price for the car, chopped up into 36 (or 48 or 60) pieces."

Some people feel more comfortable negotiating over their monthly payment only. When the salesman presents an offer of, for example, $579 per month, these people like to just get that number reduced, and to let the dealership worry about what components need to be lowered to get there. This is a simple method, and there's nothing wrong with it, as long as one knows what a good monthly payment and a bad monthly payment should be, based on the price of the car and the other factors involved. Otherwise, you could feel great that you got your monthly payment lowered from the salesman's initial offer of $579 per month to $539, only to find out later that, based on even a modest discount off the car's sticker price, the payment should have been only $439.

That is why I find it best to negotiate the price of the car before discussing the monthly payment, not vice versa. And when the salesman or his manager starts poormouthing about how they're not making money on the car, you can remind them that other components that make up the monthly payment, especially the finance rate (or "money factor" in a lease), are being marked up for additional profit by the dealer. And, dealers often receive "holdbacks," "marketing support" or other financial incentives from the parent car company. Don't worry, the car dealers are doing fine.

Read more!

August 24, 2007

Stupid News Items of the Day

In today's news we have a stupid headline and a stupid story. The stupid headline comes from the Associated Press: "Schwarzenegger Cool to Electoral Reforms." This headline is stupid because the proposal to which Governor Schwarzenegger has given a Mr. Freeze reception is not a "reform," but rather, a Republican attempt to steal the next and future elections by altering the Electoral College System. The Republicans want to apportion California's electoral votes (one-fifth of the entire nation's) to Presidential candidates based on the votes they receive, rather than compete under the current winner-take-all system. Like so many times before (phony Justice Department "voter fraud" cases against Democrats, intimidation of minorities at the polls, removing thousands of voters in Florida from eligibility to vote because their names sounded like those of felons, redistricting Texas to add numerous Republican seats in Congress, holding a "special election" to oust unpopular California Governor Gray Davis and to elect Schwarzenegger in the first place), it's another case of the Republicans trying to steal votes instead of competing for them legitimately. So please, Associated Press, don't call it "reform."

The stupid story of the day comes from the Hollywood Reporter via Reuters. It's hard to know whether these organizations were merely reporting rather than creating the stupidity, or whether, as I suspect, they added to the stupidity. The article, entitled "'Lust' Too Hot for Hollywood Censors," reports that Ang Lee's new film "Lust, Caution" has received an NC-17 rating, which makes it harder to distribute, exhibit and profit from. According to the article, and here comes the stupid part,
"Sources who have seen the film said it contains at least three scenes -- one a long montage -- featuring multiple acts of aggressive sexual activity in different positions. There's no full-frontal male nudity (the source of some NC-17 rulings when shown in sex scenes), but male-on-female oral sex, non-S&M restraints and several nontraditional sexual positions are depicted, conveying the aggression and emotional conflict between the main characters.
When asked if anyone was shown, say, upside down, one viewer said, 'It depends on where you're standing. They're very flexible.'"

Does anyone want to count the stupid parts with me? How's this for starters? "Several nontraditional sexual positions"? Based on whose standard? Did the ratings board take a look at the Kama Sutra first? Did they look at the ancient frescoes in Pompeii?

"Non-S&M" restraints?

"Upside down"?

Hopefully, this stupidity has ended with the week.

Read more!

August 23, 2007

If I had a Team of Producers and Writers, Maybe I Would be as Funny and Insightful as Jon Stewart

Damn that Jon Stewart. He makes clear what I have tried to say repeatedly about the U.S. involvement in the Middle East, and does it in a funny way to boot. I have said before that Republican presidents keep supporting and arming bad guys and countries in the Middle East (Saddam Hussein, Iran, Osama bin Laden), only to create a huge mess and have other Republican Presidents go to war against them 20 years later. I have wondered whether this isn't just a sneaky way to throw trillions of our tax dollars at giant defense contractors in a massive transfer of wealth.

But Jon Stewart gets to say that with fun little movies and all. I guess that's what you call being brilliant.

(Video clip courtesy of Crooks and Liars).

Read more!

August 18, 2007

I Can't Help it -- I Like to Work in Cafes and My Hearing is Scary Good

"I told my therapist that I'm having trouble saying yes to sex." That's what the sixty-something woman told her friend a couple of days ago, five feet from me and my chicken salad sandwich. I and my sandwich agreed that it was too much information to be imparted at that volume level.

A few minutes later, a young woman with her back to me was on her cellular telephone, saying. "this may sound a bit far-fetched, but can you check how much it would cost to ship my mattress and box spring here?" Within a couple of minutes, she said calmly, "Mother, I'm sorry you're obviously having a bad day, but there's no need --". Then she said to the older man sitting across from her, "she hung up on me."

Later that day, three young women and a young man sat near me at another cafe. One of the women sounded like an attorney. They were talking about a yet-unborn baby, and the signing of papers. "I might get married one day," said another of the women. "It could happen, you know." This caused the others to laugh. Then they began talking about C-Sections and hospital recovery rooms. I thought that it was odd to have this conversation outside at a coffee shop rather than in a law office. When they stood up, I could see that the third woman, helped up by the young man, was very pregnant. Her gold metallic handbag contrasted sharply with the unmarried woman's Gucci bag. They all hugged, and then the Gucci woman left with the couple, everyone smiling.

I was glad to hear that at least some of the women around town were having a good day.

Read more!

August 12, 2007

Watching TV With the Computer

Did I start a new trend? How popular is this trend? Or am I the only one who does this? I'm talking about watching tv with the computer.

Case in point: last night, I catch part of Face/Off for the umpteenth time. As invariably happens, I discover a detail that had not caught my attention during previous viewings. When the doctor first tells Sean Archer (John Travolta) how easy it will be to rip his face off and stick Castor Troy's (Nicholas Cage) face on him in order to fool Castor's brother Pollux (deliciously creepy as portrayed by Allesandro Nivola), the doctor says that the height difference between Castor and Sean is "negligible." I understand that in real life, Cage is six foot one. Is Travolta really that tall? I decide to hop on the nearby laptop to check it out. I find out that Travolta is six foot two. And five foot ten. And every height in between. You have to love the Internet.

Case in point number two: next, I tune to The Two Coreys . Corey one (Haim) has moved in with Corey two (Feldman). I can't figure out where Corey two and his wife live. It's some green, spacious area that is definitely not Los Angeles or Southern California. I look for a clue. I find one. A flower shop whose sign reads "Thomas Hobbs Florist." I get back on Yahoo! search, and within seconds, I pull up a bunch of hits for Thomas Hobbs Florist. They are all in Vancouver. I sit back, satisfied, waiting for the next fun tv fact to check out online. I'm my own Pop-Up Video.

Next, I check my email and split my attention with other multitasks. That's because The Two Coreys, like most everything else on television, just isn't very good.

Read more!

August 09, 2007


Holy crap! Last night I experienced my first earthquake, and it wasn't fun. Promptly at 1 a.m., the walls and floor of my building began shaking. Just as quickly, it stopped. Then, a second later, it happened again. The building creaked. The vertical blids swayed. I became nauseous.

At first, I thought that my neighbors were having incredibly vigorous sex. Then, after some critical physics calculations, I determined that two (or even three) people having sex could not possibly shift an entire high-rise building weighing hundreds of tons.

I immediately got online and checked the U.S. Geological Survey website. Sure enough, the site reported that an earthquake measuring 4.5 on the Richter scale had struck near Chatsworth, California at 12:58 a.m. Pacific time. I am located quite a distance south of Chatsworth, so I wondered what it felt like at ground zero.

Next, I looked up some earthquake safety tips. I read that I should get under a desk if a quake hits, and then "move with it until the shaking stops." The thought of doing some kind of stripper dance under a wooden desk while those many tons of concrete sat waiting in the floors above me did not give me much comfort.

Then I picked up the telephone and almost called some friends who live in single family houses and low-rise buildings nearby. I wanted to get out of this building. But I decided not to be a bother. So I found some matches, candles, a flashlight and a hand-crank radio that I keep for emergencies, put them all in one place, and then stayed awake, thinking that another quake might strike at any moment.

Wasn't I saying just yesterday that I'm so excited to have moved to California? This was a little too much excitement.

Read more!

August 06, 2007

A Place in the Phone Book

The new phone book's here! The new phone book's here! *

Yesterday, I picked up the new phone book, and, for the first time in years, opened it up to locate my name and address. That's because, for the first time in a long time, I live in a new place. One that's thousands of miles from my last home, and from the place where I grew up.

Page 73 - Johnson, Navin R.! I'm somebody now!

I've started a new life practically from scratch, with a new career, new friends and new relationships.

Millions of people look at this book everyday! This is the kind of spontaneous publicity - your name in print - that makes people.

By coincidence, last night I stumbled across a televised conference on C-SPAN, featuring my first boss in Washington, DC. He is a former federal agency chief. He looked very distinguished with his dark suit and grey hair, but his words, full of legalisms, were a foreign language that I no longer understood. I didn't want to understand them. They were dry, passionless, boring.

I'm in print! Things are going to start happening to me now.

They already have.

*Quotations in italics from Steve Martin as Navin Johnson in The Jerk (1979).

Read more!

August 04, 2007

Is the U.S. Postal Service Breaking the Law?

I just heard that a Post Office on Long Island, New York is spending taxpayer dollars to purchase "Support the Troops" car magnets, and is giving the magnets to customers for free. This sounds very odd to me. If the report is true, there is a good chance that U.S. Postal Service purchasing and giving away of the magnets violates federal law.

While "Support the Troops" may sound neutral, most people recognize it as a code phrase for "support President Bush's Iraq War strategy." Those who have disagreed with Bush's Iraq strategy, and who want to save the troops by getting them out of a bloody civil war in which they are targets, have been attacked with vitriolic hate speech and have been called unpatriotic and even traitors, by Bush Administration officials and their supporters.

Under the Hatch Act, it is illegal for federal employees to engage in certain political activities on government property, especially ones where the employees are using taxpayer dollars to favor one candidate, party or political message over another. Recently, Democratic leaders in Congress uncovered a giant series of Hatch Act violations by the Bush White House, wherein officials from the White House Office of Political Affairs (headed by Karl Rove) came to numerous federal agencies (such as the General Services Administration, run by Lurita Doan, which is in charge of procuring and maintaining federal buildings) to give Powerpoint presentations on how to help out Republican candidates in elections. These White House officials used Republican National Committee email accounts to hide their communications regarding their illegal activities.

The First Amendment is an important part of our Bill of Rights, setting us apart from many other countries. The First Amendment allows people to buy their own car magnets that say "Support the Troops," "Don't Support the Troops," and almost anything else, and to display them publicly. But, as the Hatch Act recognizes, the federal government may not take our tax money and use it to spread political messages that favor only one side. Today's federally funded "Support the Troops" magnet could be tomorrow's federally funded "I Love Abortion" or "Bushie You're Doing a Heckuva Job" or "The Bible Says the Earth is Only 6,000 Years Old and By the Way Stem Cell Research is Evil" magnet.

I'd like to hear from anyone else as to whether any other Post Offices are using your tax money to buy political stickers or car magnets and then giving them away. I'm going to pursue this.

Read more!

August 02, 2007

Bridge to Nowhere

Here we go again. Yesterday, a bridge collapsed in Minneapolis. At least four people were killed, scores were injured, and a number are missing. It was a horrible accident and we all feel sympathy for the victims. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families. But why are the cable television news networks devoting every moment of airtime to this story, at the expense of everything else?

This reaction by the cable news networks is reminiscent of other stories, including Baby Jessica (who fell into a well twenty years ago to become the first major story of this type on cable tv), O.J. Simpson, Chandra Levy, the Runaway Bride, Anna Nicole Smith, Paris Hilton, Natalee Holloway (quick, did you even remember her name?), Lacy Peterson, Michael Vicks' dogfighting, and many more. Of course, families who may have loved ones involved in the Minneapolis bridge collapse have a direct interest in knowing what is happening minute by minute. But for the rest of us, once the Department of Homeland Security reasonably established that the bridge collapse was an accident rather than a terrorist attack (and honestly, who thought that a bridge in one of our less populated cities would be the first U.S. terrorist target after 9/11?), the Minneapolis bridge collapse became a more local story.
I am not trying to say that the bridge collapse story is equivalent to the drug habits of celebrities, only that the reaction by the cable networks is similar. Unfortunately, the bridge collapse story has several elements in common with these previous stories: (1) they are human interest stories (2) which cause an immediate visceral reaction, and (3) which make for dramatic television pictures. In this case, those television pictures include emergency activities, such as loading injured people into ambulances and looking for submerged cars. Everyone should ask himself or herself, why would I want to watch such a thing, at the expense of everything else that is going on?

Important news stories affecting all of us have been crowded off the cable networks to make way for the Minneapolis bridge collapse. How many people know from watching cable tv news that six Congressmen have introduced a resolution in the House of Representatives to require the House Judiciary Committee to consider the impeachment of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales? How many people know that this impeachment resolution is part of a Constitutional crisis that threatens to shake the very foundations of the Republic, as President Bush has ordered Executive Branch officials blatantly to ignore subpoenas from Congress, stating that the White House is immune from Congressional oversight? How much cable tv news coverage has there been about the people being raped and killed every day in Darfur, or the tragedies being suffered every day by the people of Iraq? Wouldn't we all be just as compassionate if we suggested that the cable networks break away from the bridge collapse for just a few minutes to let us know what else is going on in our world?

I find myself reluctantly returning to this topic again and again. I guess that's because, like a new born baby and the news, it just happens every day.

Read more!

August 01, 2007

Green is the New Blog

It has been a little over three weeks since Al Gore's Live Earth concerts took place around the globe. Perhaps my consciousness has been raised, because, in that short time period, I have noticed a proliferation of "green" messages. I see news articles every day about comapanies and individuals "going green." Blogs regarding "green" issues seem to be proliferating. Even my local coffee house has a large poster proclaiming its parent company to be "green."

At the same time, however, I have seen a lot of technical terms thrown around. "Carbon neutral." "Cap and trade." "LEED certification." It can be very confusing and intimidating.

So what does "green" really mean to the average person? I have been studying up on green issues, and, while still a novice, I can say what "green" means to me.

The green issue is first and foremost about global warming. I'm no scientist, but I believe that Hurricane Katrina, which took place in August 2005, and Al Gore's efforts, especially his wildly popular documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," followed by the Live Earth concerts, have put global warming on the map this year. "Going green" primarily concerns reducing carbon emissions and greenhouse gases (such as carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) to help stem global warming.

A major way to reduce carbon emissions is to use clean, renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power, rather than burning fossil fuels like oil and coal. So, the movement to "go green" is largely about increasing the use of renewable energy and using less oil and coal.

Coincidentally, the price of oil has exploded this year, to record highs. As a result, gasoline prices have skyrocketed. Thus, the incentive to reduce oil use and increase clean energy to help reduce global warming is now accompanied by a parallel, capitalist incentive to save money, at least in the medium or long run. People who need less oil to heat their homes or offices because they use solar power, or who need less gasoline to run their cars because they drive hybrid cars, won't have to worry so much about the rising price of oil and gasoline. The medium and long run will soon become the short run, as the price for alternative energy sources, hybrid cars and the like drop due to increased competition and technical innovation.

Then there is the Iraq War. This war serves as a stark reminder that the U.S. presence in the Middle East, which has always been more about oil than anything else, can lead to some very detrimental results, including the rise of Al Quaeda, increased terrorism against the U.S., the death and wounding of thousands of American soldiers and up to a million Iraqi civilians, the loss of U.S. prestige and respect around the world, and our kowtowing to anti-democratic Arab countries ruled by ruthless dictators, all because we need to keep their oil spigots open to us.

All of these factors have come together in 2007 to create a perfect storm that makes going green a sensible idea to many people at this time.

So, what can the average person do? Well, there are plenty of easy steps that we can take to "go green." Going green means lifting your foot off the accelerator ever so slightly when you see a red light up ahead, rather than speeding up to fifty and then jamming on your brakes at the last second. Going green means planning your car trips just a little smarter, so that you can pick up your kids from soccer practice and get that quart of milk in the same trip, rather than passing by the grocery store, coming home and heading out again for a second trip. Going green means turning off appliances and lights at home and at the office when they are not in use. Going green means checking your car's tires to make sure they are properly inflated. For more adventurous or dedicated types, going green may involve replacing some light bulbs with ones that use less energy, using a few less paper towels, turning down the thermostat by just one degree during the winter, or even choosing your next car largely on fuel efficiency grounds.
We can also let our Congressional representatives know that we want the U.S. to reduce its dependence on oil and other dirty fossil fuels in favor of clean, renewable energy such as solar and wind. This can include tax incentives to develop and install clean energy technology, increased automobile and SUV fuel efficiency standards, and increased pollution controls for coal and power plants.

Obviously, there are people who do not believe in the idea of going green, or the problem of global warming. Many of these people are being fed skewed statistics and talking points by corporate interests, through certain political organizations and their affiliated media outlets. Many corporations, especially oil companies, have a vested interest in keeping us dependent on expensive and dirty oil. They will lobby like mad against any efforts to change or reduce the use of their products.

For these non-believers, I have some great news: not only will you save money personally by becoming a bit more green, there is also tons of money to be made by companies that help people go green. New industries are sprouting up to create new technology for producing clean, renewable energy. Revenues and stock values of some companies, such as those involved in the production of solar panels, have increased markedly. The winners in this race, including the shareholders of these companies, will make fortunes. It would be downright anti-capitalist to sit this one out. My motto to the non-believers is: you do not have to believe in something to make money off of it.

It sure seems to this novice that "going green" presents a win-win situation all around.

Read more!